28 April 2010

Easter Shepherds

Yesterday was the Sunday that comes every year in mid- Easter we know as "Good Shepherd Sunday" when the 23rd Psalm is at the center and all the readings seem to circle around it. I've been trying to figure out why that happens in the middle of Easter. My guess is that with all the excitement of Jesus' constant random appearances showing up on the road, passing through walls,barbecuing on the beach, it's easy to forget the why of all this. It's a reminder that the purpose of resurrection life for the risen Jesus is to be as a shepherd. For us urban folks, we don't have much connection with real sheep. They're just not around, except in petting zoos at school street fairs, usually with bits of urban detritus caught in their wool as they mill about among goats and other small animals. Shepherds exist for us only as metaphor rooted in nostalgia for experiences we haven't had. When my kids were small, the closest I could come to a workable image was Kenny the porter of our building who always watched them to safety on their way to and from school.

Ironically, even in Jesus' day the metaphor was already one of nostalgia. Perhaps the psalmist was really David who actually was a shepherd, but in first century Palestine, most folks didn't have much contact with shepherds. They were the only folk who didn't come inside the city gates to sleep at night. Even farmers slept inside and would go out to tend their fields then return. The shepherds literally lived outside the gates, on the margins of society. How fitting then that they would be the first to witness the birth of Jesus, the first to celebrate. The power and center of the image thus begins at the margins.

Nevertheless, the psalm has deep resonance for almost all of us. I've never done a funeral without the family requesting a recitation of the 23rd Psalm. It's one of the few verses we still can recall, usually in the King James Version. We respond to the sense of constant presence, the protection, the comfort. Most of us have known our travels through the "valley of the shadow of death." And the sense of humiliation that is answered by a table spread in the "presence of my enemies." From the margins, from valleys of dread, we are invited to dwell "in the house of the Lord forever."

If Jesus is our shepherd, if we are called to be his living risen body, what are we called to do? We look at Peter, impulsive, rash, a triple denier and only capable of responding with philos, friendship and like when Jesus offers and asks for agape, self-giving love. This is the one on whom the church will be built and who raises up Dorcas from the dead. That's a pretty clear clue as to what we are to be about in an Easter life, in Resurrection living. Easter is more about our resurrection than that of Jesus. We are both subject and object of resurrection. We are called to raise the dead. This is personal and relational as we all have living deaths from which we must be raised, some more dramatic than others. It may be grief for a lost loved one or lost love, of addiction or illness or maybe even a hidden life we are afraid to claim as our own. We're called to "shepherd" one another, lead one another, to resurrection living.

But it also a communal calling, whether it is a congregation exhausted by the battle or a whole church that has come to the point of death by exhausting itself by guarding the gates of exclusion. The lgbt movement for inclusion has been like an EMT trying to breathe life back into a moribund body. Like "shepherds" trying pull the church back from the edge of the cliff. It's exhausting work. But the promise is we are not alone. We have learned to feast even when surrounded by enemies. Let us feel that comfort and protection and promise as we continue to live into Easter.

Bob Brashear is Pastor of West-Park Presbyterina Church

14 April 2010

The Resurrection Reality through the Eye of Faith: Scripture passage: John 20: 19-31

Many of us have come to recognize this passage as the story of Doubting Thomas, but is this story really about Thomas and his doubting? Surely, Thomas is the one who says “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” And the other part of the passage we remember well is Jesus’ words that conclude the scene “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” If we remember only this exchange, and put it together with the popular yet non-biblical title like “Doubting Thomas” in our minds, we get an impression that Thomas was the only disciple who needed to “see” in order to believe; and that he is being singled out as the one with a feeble faith, a “poor example of a disciple” we don’t wan to be identified with. But, let’s go back and see if that is how the story goes.

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”

So, even before the disciples had a chance to ask, Jesus took initiative in showing them his hands and his side. Not only that, right before this passage is the scene where Mary Magdalene who had seen Jesus earlier on that same day, announced to the disciples hat she had seen the Lord. So the disciples had heard from her the same witness they themselves would later give go Thomas. But Jesus knew the disciples needed to see the marks of the nails to believe it was him, the crucified Jesus, whose presence they were beholding.

But that is just so God. With us creatures, God always is the one taking initiative, going ahead of us, reaching out to us, always providing for us just what we need to turn to our Creator. Thomas may have missed out on that first occasion when the disciples “saw” Jesus’ hands and his side, but for all we know from the story, the disciples might not have been any different from him. Thomas’ reaction of doubt and his resistant to believe the witnesses of others without he himself seeing, highlights what may have been the state of mind of all disciples who were huddled together in fear.

“The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.” I need to make a side comment here that the people referred to as the Jews in most English translations of the Bible are not our Jewish brothers and sisters, but the Judeans, referring to the Israelite people from the region of Judea, whereas Jesus and his followers were Galileans from the region of Galilee. At any rate, the disciples had just witnessed the death of Jesus on the cross but a few days ago. In a stark contrast to the ecstatic joy they experienced upon entering Jerusalem with Jesus, their hope for a Messiah had been dashed. All they were left with was the haunting guilt of their own betrayal, which left them with little faith in themselves. Those Judeans must be out to get them, with the help of the Roman imperial officials. They had all the reasons to be afraid.

Behind those locked doors, the disciples had no clue what God had just done, despite the witness of Mary Magdalene that she had seen the Lord. The crucifixion of Jesus was a very physical event that they had just seen with their own eyes, so the disciples needed physical signs to see that the risen Jesus in front of their eyes was just as “Real.” Because in the life of the world as they knew it, every “reality” had a corresponding evidence that was tangible and visible. Isn’t it also how you and I today judge what is “real?” The scientific and technological advance in the past two millennia hasn’t made much of a difference in the way we, too, understand what is Real. If anything, we who have more confidence in our knowledge about the natural world demand physical evidence all the more to accept anything that claims to be “real.”

The signs, as miracles are called in John’s Gospel, were not necessary for Jesus to be Jesus, namely, Son of God, but the author of the Gospel appeals to those “signs” to communicate what had “really” happened, because this “real happening” that John wants us to “see” in the Resurrection is so inexplicable that it can only be seen with the Eye of Faith. The miracles in John’s Gospels are indeed signs that point our eyes to “see” an otherwise intangible, invisible Reality of God.

Rudolf Bultmann was a 20th century theologian who took seriously the question of how to get across to us modern people the message of the Biblical witness concerning the Reality of God, without having it dismissed merely as mythology. He wrote:

…a miracle in the sense of an action of God cannot be thought of as an event which happens on the level of secular events. It is not visible, not capable of objective view of the world. To the scientific, objective observer God’s action is a mystery. The action of God is hidden from every eye except the eye of faith. Only the so called natural, secular (worldly) events are visible to every man and capable of proof. It is within them that God’s hidden action is taking place.

Today, there are faithful, serious Christians who expend enormous amount of energy trying show that God’s action of raising Jesus from death was something that was visible to everyone and capable of proof. You can go online and find lists of facts presented as evidence. But Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.” If our Easter Hope relied on those evidence that “made sense” in the world of our own senses, there would be no need for the Eye of Faith, for that would be reducing the Reality of God to fit into the reality of our world limited by our senses, where death and violence and all kinds of evil seem to have an upper hand, even since that first Easter morning.

On the other hand, today, there are those of us faithful, serious Christians who are in the “closet” when it comes to our feelings about the Resurrection of Jesus as a historical event in the past. We may have a deep abiding sense of peace of God in our heart; the Peace that Jesus brought with him to the disciples in that fear-filled room; yet, a question like “Do you believe in the bodily Resurrection?” can make us cringe and leave us feeling like our guarded secret just got exposed, or else we become convinced that people would take us now for a poster child for “Doubting Thomas.” (sigh…) We should never feel that way, for that would be reducing the meaning of the Resurrection faith to our own ability to believe, swallowing whole without questioning, that which is simply unbelievable to us. You do that and see your faith choke itself to death. For doubt and questioning is an essential part of Christian Faith that is PISTIS.

Yes, PISTIS. It is the Greek word in the New Testament for faith, and its verb form “to believe” is PISTEUOU. But this word also means TRUST and TO TRUST, which I think captures better the nuance of “seeing with the eye of faith” of which Bultmann spoke, or “believing without seeing” that Jesus was talking about when addressing Thomas.

The questions then can be phrased: What is it that we COME TO TRUST in the Resurrection story? And how ARE WE to COME TO TRUST “it”?
The answers can be found in the story John tells. The Jesus God raised had the marks of the nails in his hands. John is the only Gospel that tells of this detail, so why did he bother? In resurrecting Jesus, God did not just patch Jesus up and put him right back into the world that had killed him. God did not just “undo” or “reverse” death. The Resurrection as an action of God is far more radical and mysterious. The Jesus God raised bears the mark of the sins of the world that rejected him, but the sin could not keep him down. For God overcame the power of death by bringing the New and Eternal Life into the world. That is the action of God John wants us see with our eyes of faith in his story of the Resurrection. That is the Reality of God that we are called to “believe without seeing.” That is the truth about Jesus, the Messiah and the Son of God, that we are called to COME TO TRUST, so that in Trusting, we, too, may experience this new and eternal life that Death can no longer put out. That is the divine Reality manifested in the risen Christ who came into that fear-filled room behind the locked doors, saying “Peace be with you.”

The moment the disciples SAW that they were indeed in the presence of the crucified Jesus, (including Thomas who did a kind of a double take), their eyes of faith were opened and they saw Jesus for who he was, the risen Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. Now it was Thomas who affirmed “My Lord and my God!”

Still the other question remains: How do WE COME TO TRUST this? Mary Magdalene, the disciples, and Thomas….to all of them Jesus revealed himself. But WHAT ABOUT US? Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Could those words be for us, who have not seen Jesus with the marks of the nails in his hands, but only have the witnesses of the Bible and the testimonies of those who have experienced the presence of the living Christ?

The answer again is in the Scripture. After that day, after they received the Holy Spirit, outwardly, nothing changed; the disciples still lived in the first century Palestine, with the threat from the opposing Judeans and the Roman imperial officers, but internally, they had been transformed; they became participants in the Reality of God; indeed the citizens of the Kingdom of God.

The other lectionary passage for April 11, 2010 is Acts 5: 27-32 which gives us a glimpse of this transformation:

The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

What a difference. Before they were locking themselves up in the house for fear of them. And now, they boldly declare that they are no longer able to obey the authority of this world, because they are witnesses to the Resurrection, to the new world order, to the divine reality that has broken into this world.

What is the witness here? It is a witness to the new life that they have received.
The new life in Christ is never just a matter of our personal relationship with God. The new Life in Christ is Life in relationship with the world in which we God placed us. God’s gift of Eternal Life is not only about our life that continues even after our death, but we partake in it now. Jesus who is our Savior is at the same time the Savior of the whole world and he sends us out into it to, with the Holy Spirit as our guide and comforter, to be witnesses to his Resurrection. To Witness is to participate in this Reality of God; to live as the citizens of the Kingdom of God. To Witness is to share with others what we have seen with our eyes of faith. To Witness is to start living the Eternal Life in Christ’s name, not after we die, but here and now, following our teacher and the Lord with the marks of nails in his hands. It means for us to be sent into this world that is marked with the violence, suffering and brokenness. It affects our dealings with people whom we trust, as well as those who cause us pain, whether they be in our work place, in the classroom , in our family at home or our church family. Jesus said “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And so Jesus sends also us, saying, “receive the Holy Spirit.” Let us go, then to stand among those who are huddled in this fear-filled world, saying “Peace be with you.”

Takako Suzuki Terino

03 April 2010

Lent: day 40

I find hope in the wilderness when I am surprised by creation right here in the city… be it a tiny bird in a high rise window, or a flower determined to be the first in bloom.

02 April 2010

Lent: day 39

I find hope in the wilderness when I realize God is always with me.
Betty Bolden

01 April 2010

Lent: day 38

I find hope in the wilderness when good conversations happen over a glass of wine--and i remember this is right where Jesus would be--right where Jesus is.

Chris, Presbyterian Welcome Board President